By Erin Clements

At MP&F’s fall retreat, networking was a big topic of conversation. This can be an intimidating topic for rising young professionals, but it’s an important skill to have for your own development and for the success of your company.

Following our retreat discussion and pulling past advice on the subject, here are my top five tips for networking like a pro, no matter your age or experience level:

1. Make a good first impression.
Did you know a person forms an initial opinion of another within the first five seconds of meeting? Dress professionally, hold yourself confidently, smile, and make eye contact. You want to look engaged, happy to be there, and ready to mix and mingle!

2. Shake a lot of hands.
Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with someone. If you wait for someone to initiate with you, you could find yourself standing in the corner by yourself all night. Set a goal for yourself before an event on how many hands you want to shake before leaving. [That said, make sure you have a solid handshake – nothing is worse than shaking a dead fish.]

3. Ask open-ended questions.
In order to make a connection with someone, you have to get to know them. In order to get to know them, you have to talk to them for longer than two minutes. The best way to do this is to avoid yes/no or one-word-answer questions. A great exercise is to take your go-to questions and find ways to make them open-ended. For example, “How long have you lived in Nashville?” could turn into “What are your favorite things to do in Nashville?”

4. Be able to communicate what you do.
There are few things more embarrassing than the moment when someone asks what your job entails and your mind goes completely blank. Avoid that embarrassment and have an elevator speech ready. Include two or three projects that you’ve been actively involved in as work examples. Who knows? The person you’re talking to could be a potential client or employer one day!

5. Follow up!
It doesn’t matter how great the connection you made with someone if you never talk to him or her again. Make sure to grab a business card from anyone you speak with and then shoot him or her an email the next day. You can keep the email short and sweet. Say you enjoyed chatting and include a token or two from your previous conversation to show you were truly listening. The fact that you took the time to follow up will speak volumes on its own.

As with all things in life, practice makes perfect. For networking opportunities, you can check out sites like LocalLevo, 12th & Broad or YP Nashville!